NATO: Syria Using Scud-type Rockets Against Opposition Groups

U.S., NATO deploy Patriot anti-missile systems to Turkey in anticipation of rockets hitting the territory; Syria rebels attack base protecting military compound.

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The Syrian military has continued to fire Scud-type missiles against anti-government forces, NATO's top official said Friday, describing the move as an act of desperation of a regime nearing its end.

Although none of the Syrian rockets hit Turkish territory, Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmusen said the use of the medium-range ballistic rockets showed that NATO was justified in deploying six batteries of Patriot anti-missile systems in neighboring Turkey.

The United States, Germany and the Netherlands will each provide two batteries of the U.S.-built air defense systems to Turkey. More than 1,000 American, German and Dutch troops will man the batteries, likely from sites well inland in Turkey.

Syria's use of missiles are "acts of a desperate regime approaching collapse," Fogh Rasmussen said.

A week ago, U.S. and NATO officials said the Syrians had used the ground-to-ground rockets for the first time in the nearly two-year conflict.

Damascus immediately denied the claims.

Syria is reported to have an array of artillery rockets, as well as medium-range missiles some capable of carrying chemical warheads. These include Soviet-built SS-21 Scarabs and Scud-B missiles, originally designed to deliver nuclear warheads.

On Thursday, NATO's supreme commander U.S. Adm. James Stavridis said the batteries will be shipped to Turkey within the next few days. He said he expected them to achieve initial operational capability next month.

Syrian rebels attacked a base protecting a military industrial compound in the country's north on Friday as anti-government forces pushed forward in efforts to capture wider areas near the border with Turkey, an activist group said.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said seven rebels were killed in the attack on the air defense base in the town of al-Safira.

The town is home to a complex of military factories and lies just south of Syria's largest city and commercial hub, Aleppo.

The rebels tried to storm the base but were pushed back, only to later shell some of the military factories, said Observatory's chief Rami Abdul-Rahman.

The attacks are part of a push by the rebels who have been capturing army bases in and around Aleppo over the past weeks as they gain wider areas near the border with Turkey.

Syria's conflict started 21 months ago as an uprising against President Bashar Assad, whose family has ruled the country for four decades. It quickly morphed into a civil war, with rebels taking up arms to fight back against a bloody crackdown by the government. According to activists, more than 40,000 people have been killed since March 2001.

Abdul-Rahman said the plants in al-Safira are surrounded by army bases and posts to protect them. He said Friday's clashes came three days after rebels captured a military warehouse in the area. It was later bombed by Syrian warplanes, killing nearly two dozen rebels, Abdul-Rahman said.

Also Friday, a prominent state-run Syrian TV news anchor told the pan-Arab network Al-Arabiya that he defected after being subjected to several sessions of interrogations by the country's intelligence services.

Ahmad Fakhouri said he and his colleagues used to read the news as it was given to them and "the anchor had no right to change one word."

Fakhouri said he quit his job at the TV eight months ago and was able to flee the country with the help of rebels.

"I look forward for the day when Syria will be free and I can return to my country to practice my job," he said from a secret location outside Syria. Fakhouri would not disclose his whereabouts for fear of government repercussions.

The Associated Press contacted the TV head office in Damascus and was told that Fakhouri left and is now working for state-run radio. An official at the state-run radio said Fakhouri is on vacation.

Syrian authorities usually don't comment about defections of officials or state employees.

Meanwhile in Damascus, Palestinians who fled their homes in the Yarmouk refugee camp after much of it was captured by rebels continued returning home Friday. The refugees first began going back Thursday, after clashes between the army and the rebels subsided and a deal was reached for opposition forces to withdraw from the camp, the Observatory said.

More than two-thirds of the roughly 150,000 Palestinian residents fled Yarmouk since last week when the fighting flared up, according to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees. They sought shelter in the outskirts of the camp, other parts of Damascus or in other cities, or headed to the Syrian-Lebanon border, UNRWA said.

On Friday, fighting continued in the Damascus neighborhoods of Hajar Aswad and Tadamon, just outside Yarmouk, the Observatory said. It had no immediate words on casualties.

Rebels also attacked army positions in the southern suburbs of the capital, including Mleiha and Chebaa, the group said. The areas are close to the Damascus International Airport and have witnessed heavy clashes over the past weeks.

The Observatory said a bomb struck a checkpoint in the Damascus neighborhood of Dumar late Thursday, wounding several soldiers and pro-government gunmen.

State-run news agency reported that "many gunmen" were killed in the Damascus suburb of Daraya, which has been subjected to shelling and attacks by government troops for weeks.

A picture taken on March 11, 2003 shows Patriot anti-missile batteries installed at the Diyarbakir military airport in southeastern Turkey. Credit: AFP

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